Adapting Web Electronic Libraries to English Studies

  1. 1. Ian Lancashire

    University of Toronto, Centre for Computing in the Humanities - University of Toronto

  2. 2. Christopher Douglas

    University of Toronto

  3. 3. Dennis G. Jerz

    University of Toronto

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Adapting Web Electronic Libraries to English Studies
Ian Lancashire
Christopher Douglas
University of Toronto
Dennis G. Jerz
University of Toronto
Keywords: web, electronic-library, English

The UTEL Project
We are developing a Web-based University of Toronto English library (named UTEL) under a development grant from the Provost's office. UTEL aims to integrate electronic materials into both teaching and research activities of English faculty and students. Our basic materials come from the CD-ROM published by the Modern Language Association of America with Using TACT with Electronic Texts (New York, 1996): over 3,000 texts from Beowulf to World-War-I poetry. Many of these texts are donated by Dr. Jeffery Triggs, director of the North America Reading Program for the Oxford English Dictionary. Many come from new editions of major English works--based on original editions and manuscripts--by the project director, Ian Lancashire. Other materials are contributed by members of the English department especially for UTEL. It is already partly on the Web in Representative Poetry On-line, a collection of 1,340 poems by over 215 poets. Inevitably, current UTEL development emphasizes texts from other genres: drama, novels, and non-fiction prose.
A full-time faculty member, who works on the project without release time, directs two graduate assistants from the Department of English Ph.D. program, who have year-long contracts. Both do research in 20th-century literature. One is a C++ programmer and Web-site designer for a Faculty of Engineering Writing Facility. The other has no prior programming experience. UTEL has very sound infrastructural support from the Faculty of Arts and Science through its CHASS (Computers in the Humanities and Social Sciences) facility, the heir to the Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH), and from the University Library through its Information Commons and Web Design Group.

UTEL project members routinely segment, encode in HTML, document, and index these texts with TACTweb and patterweb, both local search engines. Users will be able to read the texts or print them out as well as search them. We use java, perl, sed, emacs, and other well-known UNIX utilities to design the Web pages.

We routinely discuss our work with departmental members of differing professional persuasions. They include postmodernists, deconstructionists, new historicists, philologists, feminists, diehard new critics, psychological critics, language teachers, and computer-based and cultural theorists. Although the university provides all faculty and students with e-mail addresses and Web access, workstations are at a premium still. Many find logging on difficult in practice. Most faculty offices are not yet connected to the university backbone.

The Limits of the Virtual Library
The construction of UTEL-like sites is likely to become common in the near future because of the availability of good Web browsers and of the resources of many university e-text sites, including the texts on the MLA CD-ROM. However, we believe that Web-based virtual libraries need to be reconceptualized to function well within post-secondary education.
UTEL-like virtual educational sites sometimes depart from discipline standards. The lack of peer-reviewed material, the instability of sites, and usability problems with on-line materials for reading, note-taking, and in-class reference can be swept away by improving technology. Yet inevitably UTEL-like sites aid a kind of text-based discourse analysis more than literary studies emphasizing biography, history, and cultural context. On-line libraries like UTEL match the professional needs of English studies differently from one type of theoretical approach to another. This privileging exists partly because on-line UTEL-like sites are computer-based, partly because they have been modelled by computational researchers.

UTEL-like sites, if conceived of as information banks, do not yet meet the needs of the whole profession of English studies. They tend to supply the needs of librarians, computer scientists, and English researchers at work in computational text analysis and editing. Current electronic libraries favour teaching and research methods of those who analyze or edit texts and those who use a scientific method in doing so. There is nothing inappropriate about this approach (quite the contrary), but no general-purpose medium for education, such as the Web, should treat one type of theoretical and practical work differently from another.

For this reason, a local discipline-based Web site should be re-conceived as a collection of individual faculty and departmental offices, each occupied by an on-line double of a faculty member, each drawing on a UTEL-like library. Sites of this kind would resemble a network of artificial intelligences that correspond to current faculty members and that can serve students and indeed the public with their expertise and learning around the clock.

The pressing issue in on-line educational computing is not etexts or encoding methods, not computerized classrooms or search engines. The issue is how to organize UTEL-like sites to enhance the usability of a discipline's researchers and teachers within the university and within the community.

Artificial Intelligences and the Web
In 1988 Hans Moravec, a computer scientist at Carnegie- Mellon, forecast that in 2018 the technology will exist to capture directly in digital form an individual's thoughts on-line. He wrote only four years after sf- writer William Gibson's Neuromancer, set at about this future time, depicted the virtual lives of Henry Case and Dixie Flatline on a net eventually governed by a joint artificial intelligence code-named Wintermute and Neuromancer. Ten years later another Nebula-award winner, Canadian Robert Sawyer, portrayed in The Terminal Experiment (1995) a psychological case study of immortality obtained by a Toronto doctor who made three virtual copies of his mind, released into the Internet.
This speculative fiction is far from today's crude software agents, the go-bots that conduct intelligent on- line searches for clients and report back results meeting very selective criteria. Yet the direction of the marketplace itself is clear enough. Information banks are not sufficient. Intelligent advice on how to harness them must be in place. Just as universities place information in libraries and situate the intelligence to negotiate that knowledge base in faculty members and librarians, so on-line universities must supplement their Web sites with on-line intelligences.

A faculty member's Web page is potentially his professional double. It can echo almost the scholar's entire productivity: course descriptions, bibliographies, schedules, texts, and notes; self-administerable student tests; lecture notes; curriculum vitae; faq sheets; and interactive question-answering programs. Most of this technology exists today, but UTEL-like Web sites in this context must be re-conceptualized as feeding the needs of on-line simacula of individual teacher-researchers as well as departmental sites that represent the faculty as a group.

We will discuss how teacher-researchers, no matter what their theoretical perspective may be, can be linked with UTEL-like sites; and how that step will both ease the university's transformation by information technology and re-establish the primacy of faculty in an on-line academe.

Lancashire, Ian, in collaboration with John Bradley, Willard McCarty, Michael Stairs, and T. R. Wooldridge. Using TACT with Electronic Texts: Text Analysis Computing Tools Version 2.1. New York: MLA, 1996. With CD-ROM.
Lancashire, Ian. "Representative Poetry On-Line: Updating A Historical English Teaching Anthology." Scholarly Discourse and Computing Technology: Perspectives on Pedagogy, Research, and Dissemination in the Humanities. Ed. R. G. Siemens and William Winder. Printed in Text Technology and on-line in Computing in the Humanities Working Papers.

Moravec, Hans. Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Representative Poetry On-line. Toronto: University of Toronto Library, 1994-. Version 2.0. 1996.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at Queen's University

Kingston, Ontario, Canada

June 3, 1997 - June 7, 1997

76 works by 119 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ALLC (9), ACH/ICCH (17), ALLC/EADH (24)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC